Universities and the Future of Humankind

In these notes I would like to like to emphasise three points from the standpoint of human ecology. 

  1. Ecological background

Human history has been marked by four distinct ecological Phases:

  • Ecological Phase 1.  The Hunter-gatherer Phase.  This phase lasted some 300,000 years.
  • Ecological Phase 2.  The Early Farming Phase.  This phase began about 12000 years ago.
  • Ecological Phase 3.  The Early Urban Phase.  This phase began around 8000 to 9000 years ago, but it really got under way about 5000 years ago. The ecology of urban dwellers was very different from that of hunter-gatherers or early farmers.
  • Ecological Phase 4.  The Exponential Phase.[1]  This ecological phase, which began after the so-called Enlightenment around 250 years ago, is now in full swing.   It has been characterised by massive growth of the human population and an explosive and continuing increase in resource and energy use and waste production by humankind, with ever-increasing impacts on the ecosystems of our planet.  The most critical issue at present is global warming due to the enhanced greenhouse effect – but there many other signs of ecologically unsustainable changes in the ecosystems of the biosphere. 

There is no doubt that human civilisation will collapse if the present trends in population growth and in resource and energy use and waste production continue unbated. The days of the Exponential Phase of human history are numbered.

The fourth ecological phase has also seen the invention and manufacture of weapons of mass destruction which pose an horrendous threat to the human species.

Broadly speaking, there are two possibilities for the future. First, business as usual – leading inevitably to the ecological collapse of civilisation. Second, an effective transition to a fifth ecological phase of human history in which human society is truly sensitive to, in harmony with and respectful of the processes of life in and around us.  We have been calling this a biosensitive society[2].  A biosensitive society will promote health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population and in the ecosystems of the biosphere. Healthy people on a healthy planet.

  • Human culture as a powerful new force in biological systems

Cultural evolution has, of course, led to very many changes in human society which most people would regard as positive. However, culture can also get things wrong and can lead to behaviours that are nonsensical and sometimes very much against the interests of humanity.  We refer to these as cultural maladaptations. There are countless examples of cultural maladaptation in human history.  

Cultural maladaptations in the modern world are manifold. They range from activities adversely affecting human health, like the practice of smoking tobacco, to activities that threaten the future of civilisation, such as the use of fossil fuels as an energy source, the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction and economic systems that demand ever-increasing growth in the use of material resources and energy.

In fact, the prevailing cultures across the world today incorporate powerful delusions that are completely incompatible with the achievement of ecological sustainability and therefore the survival of civilisation. These cultures have lost sight of our total dependence on the processes of life, and they have no grasp of the nature, magnitude and seriousness of current human impacts on the ecosystems of our planet. They are blocking any effective move towards a biosensitive and sustainable ecological Phase 5 society.  In other words, there is little hope for humanity unless there come about radical changes in the worldviews and priorities of the prevailing cultures across the world.

In a biosensitive society the prevailing culture will be characterised by profound respect for the processes of life that gave rise to us, of which we are a part and on which we are totally dependent for our existence.  Unlike today, the goal of achieving biosensitivity will be seen as supremely important. It will be given highest priority on the political and social agenda. 

This change in the worldviews and priorities of the prevailing cultures of the world will be the most essential and significant difference between biosensitive and ecologically sustainable societies of the future and the bioinsensitive societies we live in today. The necessary changes in human activities (e.g. energy use, deforestation) and societal arrangements (e.g. the economic system, population policies) will not take place without this cultural transformation.

However, this radical cultural shift will only come about if a wave of new understanding sweeps across the cultures of the world – understanding of the story of life and the human place in nature. This new understanding will be the pivotal factor in the transition to biosensitivity. 

  • Universities                                                                  

The survival I am strongly of the opinion that universities have the potential, indeed the obligation, to play a key role in facilitating this cultural transformation. As I see it, new programs will be introduced with two main objectives:

  1. To bring about basic understandingthroughout academic institutions, and also in the community at large
  2. of the human place in nature
  3. of the inescapable fact that the survival of civilisation will require big changes in the scale and kind of human activities on Earth
  4. of the basic principle that the achievement of harmony with the processes of life that underpin our existence is a precondition for the survival of civilisation and the wellbeing of humankind (the principle of biosensitivity).

  5. To promote intellectual effort and cross-disciplinary dialogue dedicated to
  6. creating a vision of a new society that is truly sensitive to, in harmony with and respectful of the processes of life, and that promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population and in the ecosystems of our planet.
  7. determining how the necessary changes in society can be brought about.

Universities could achieve these objectives in various ways: 

  • By disseminating, across all disciplines within the university and in the community, scientific information about the human place in nature and the current anthropogenic threats to human survival and wellbeing; and by mounting integrative undergraduate courses available to students in all faculties on the human situation in the biohistorical perspective.

  • By developing and applying integrative conceptual frameworks that facilitate thinking and communicating about the interplay between different cultural and physical components of the total system – in the context of the transition to a sustainable and biosensitive society.
  • By arranging multi-occupational and multidisciplinary workshops involving staff and students as well as invited representatives of governmental agencies, the private sector and community organisations, focusing on the social changes necessary for the achievement of biosensitivity. 

  • By inviting leaders from different fields of human endeavour and specialisation to respond to the scientific information and to present their views on its implications for society as a whole, or for a particular aspect of society.

  • By publicising the outcomes of these activities as widely publicised in the academic literature, the social media and the daily press.

Stephen Boyden

This is a shortened version of a document sent to the Vice-Chancellor, ANU, Professor Brian Schmidt AC, on 14 July 2017.

[1] This ecological phase is now popularly referred to as the Anthropocene.

[2] The use of this term is discussed in the document Notes on biosensitivity. It is based on recognition of the fundamental and extremely important principle that human wellbeing and ultimately the survival of civilisation will be dependent on human activities being sensitive to, in harmony with, and respectful of the processes of life that underpin our existence. We must aim for a society that is not only sustainable, but that also positively promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population and in the ecosystems of the biosphere. Biosensitivity is a broader and richer concept than sustainability. Some people are not happy with this word; but we will continue to use it until someone comes up with a better term. The concept is an important one, and it needs a name.

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